Lancer/Ace Conan the Usurper: Rereading and Reminiscence

When I discovered, and started reading, the Lancer editions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, many volumes in the series had already been in print a good five or six years, but it wasn’t old news. It wasn’t passé. No, on the contrary, Conan was at his peak in popularity and these editions were being reprinted on a regular basis and a few of the books were still scheduled for their first printing.

It was an exciting time for us sword and sorcery buffs. Conan’s literary popularity pawned the floodgates for all the other S&S heroes to be reprinted from their pulp days or for authors to create new characters and adventures.

By the time I read Conan the Usurper, I was already reading the novels and anthologies of Michael Moorcock’s Elric, Fritz Leiber’s Fafard and the Gray Mouser, and John Jakes’ Brak the barbarian (0ddly enough, despite my love for Lin Carter, I never read any of his Thongor of Lemuria books), to name a few.

And Sword and Sorcery made its way to comics with Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, being the most successful, but there were also others. DC put out Sword of Sorcery, which featured Fafard and the Gray Mouser adventures and there was Dax the Warrior with art and writing by Esteban Maroto in Warren’s successful black and white comic magazine, Eerie, which was followed by Marvel and it’s B&W comic magazines, such as Savage Tales and the Savage Sword of Conan.

It was an exciting time to be alive.

But let’s get to Conan the Usurper which is book 8 in the Lancer/Ace series of Robert E. Howard’s Conan published back in the late 60s and 70s. This edition was reprinted seven times between 1967 and 1973, the year Lancer went bankrupt.

Frank Frazetta did the cover. It depicts Conan in chains straddling a monstrous serpent that is rising above him to strike, which came from this passage: “Slowly, a huge, hideous, wedge-shaped head took form before his dilated eyes, and from the darkness oozed, in flowing scaly coils, the ultimate horror of reptilian development.”

Conan, in this book, is now in his early to mid-forties.

Conan_the_usurper

Conan the Usurper, 1967

Conan the Usurper (1967) by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp

Contents
“Introduction” (L. Sprague de Camp)
“The Treasure of Tranicos” (Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp)
“Wolves Beyond the Border” (Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp)
“The Phoenix on the Sword” (Robert E. Howard)
“The Scarlet Citadel” (Robert E. Howard)

Introduction. As always, de Camp starts things off with a little essay on Howard and Conan.

The Treasure of Tranicos. The manuscript was found in the house of the Howard estates’ late literary agent, Oscar J. Friend. It started life as a Conan story that kept getting rejected, so eventually Howard changed it to a pirate tale. L. Sprague de Camp took the original story, edited it, and it was published in Fantasy Magazine for February 1953. It was then published in hardcover in the anthology King Conan (1953, Gnome Press). It was then reedited once again by de Camp, where he added elements such as the wizard Thoth-Amon to make it fit biographically into Conan’s life, then published in the paperback edition of Conan the Usurper. The story was then republished in The Treasure of Tranicos (1980, Ace Books), Echoes of Valor (1987, Tor Books), The Conan Chronicles Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (Gollancz, 2001) and Conan of Cimmeria: Volume Three (1935-1936) (Del Rey Books, 2005).

The story was adapted in Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan #47-48 by Roy Thomas and John Buscema.

The story starts with our hero on the run from the savage Picts, having made his way west from his last adventure in Conan the Warrior in the frontiers to the coast.

To escape the Picts, he clambers up a steep stone crag, which turns out to be feared b the Picts and they abandon the chase.

Inside a cave, Conan finds a tunnel that has several chests in it and a closed door. Opening the door, a blue mist solidifies and black hands try to choke him, but he manages to break free to run down the passage. He realizes the demon isn’t following and is confined within the room; a room filled with dead men and treasure.

Meanwhile, the story shifts to a coastal fort, where Count Valenso of Korzetta is in hiding from something. Suddenly, Baracan pirates appear, seeking a treasure they believe the count has. They try to storm the fort but leave when another ship appears on the horizon. That ship contains Zingaran buccaneers, who had been following the pirates to find the treasure.

Add Thoth-Amon, the cave’s demon, Picts, and Conan finds himself in a rousing adventure against five adversaries.

Wolves Beyond the Border. The story is from an unfinished fragment and a one page synopsis that Howard wrote and de Camp finished to fit into Conan’s history. It was republished in The Conan Chronicles Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (Gollancz, 2001) and Conan of Cimmeria: Volume One (1932-1933) (Del Rey, 2003).

The story was adapted in Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan #59 by Roy Thomas and Ernie Chan.

This is a jarring tale compared to everything else in this series. For one thing, it’s told in first person. For another, Conan never appears in the story at all and is only mentioned by way of the characters talking about Conan and his followers rising up against the king of Aquilonia.

The Phoenix on the Sword. Originally published in Weird Tales, December 1932. It was republished in King Conan (Gnome Press, 1953), The Conan Chronicles Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (Gollancz, 2001) and Conan of Cimmeria: Volume One (1932-1933) (Del Rey, 2003).

Known to any Conan afficiando as the very first published story about the Cimmerian. Also known is that it is a rewriting of the rejected Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!” Now I enjoyed this story, and consider it among the best Howard Conan stories. After all, it is fast-paced, exciting, and introduced the readers of the day to Conan for the first time. Nevertheless, I think the Kull story was somewhat superior. The Kull story is longer, adding more details of the treachery of those who would slay the king, whereas the Conan story is pretty much just the battle between the king and his betrayers. Also, there is a love story between a slave girl and a noble that shows more of Kull’s character as a caring monarch. In comparison, Conan is almost one-dimensional.

The Scarlet Citadel. This was the second Conan story ever published, and again, he is king of Aquilonia, betrayed by two neighboring kingdoms and placed in a pit to die. But this is Conan! There is sorcery, monsters, and plenty of great battles and skirmishes.

I wonder how readers of the day greeted these last two stories, being introduced for the first time to Conan, king of Aquilonia, only to have Howard write the next 16 Conan tales out of biographical order as a younger man, just learning the ways of civilization. Personally, I would have found it somewhat jarring and just a little off-putting.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Howard and think he’s a fantastic story teller, but I just find it baffling that he would start writing about Conan toward the end of his life, then proceed to write the rest of the stories sort of willy-nilly throughout the character’s younger years.

This is why I really like the Lancer editions because they follow Conan’s life chronologically from beginning to end. Say what you will about how de Camp and Carter edited the Hell out of Howard’s words, at least they tried to arrange the tales in a sort of biographical timeline that makes sense.

-30-

Lancer/Ace Conan
Lancer/Ace Conan of Cimmeria
Conan the Freebooter
Conan the Wanderer
Conan the Adventurer
Conan the Buccaneer
Conan the Warrior

 

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